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September 24, 2007 | by  | in Music | [ssba]

Iron & Wine – The Shepherd’s Dog

Florida folkie Sam Beam (who records and performs under the moniker Iron & Wine) is fast establishing himself as one of the decade’s most compelling and crucial new songwriters. With debut The Creek Drank the Cradle, he captured the attention of the alternative-country audience with his soft, intimate crooning and low-fi recording style. In follow-up album Our Endless Numbered Days, he smoothed and rounded out his sound, further extending his audience. Throw in a couple of EPs (including the excellent Woman King) and a collaborative mini-album recorded with Calexico, and you’ve got a fairly impressive effort. One could think Mr Beam perfectly justified in kicking back and growing his beard a little more. Luckily, he has a few more tunes for us.

And what marvelous tunes they are. The Shepherd’s Dog, Beam’s third full-length album, represents an enormous achievement in terms of artistic development. Instead of sticking to the subtle finger-picking and lilting vocals that characterised the majority of his previous work, The Shepherd’s Dog stuns the listener with its dense complexity and thick instrumentation. From opening track ‘Pagan Angel and a Borrowed Car’, with its interwoven guitar, violin and piano melodies underlined with strident drum rhythms, through to sweeping finale ‘Flightless Bird, American Mouth’, The Shepherd’s Dog showcases Beam’s relentlessly shifting approach to songwriting.

There’s a diversity in these songs you’d never have expected. The best example on offer is the dub-saturated shakedown ‘Wolves’, a 5-minute slice of reverberating keys and hazy rhythms combined with healthy stabs of blues-inflicted acoustic guitar. When placed alongside the more predictable ‘Resurrection Fern’, a gentle acoustic number, ‘Wolves’ seems a bit out of place – slightly awkward, but utterly intriguing and satisfying.

Another slightly surprising step is the sequence of second track ‘White Tooth Man’ – a bitter sitar jam, followed by ‘Lovesong of the Buzzard – a sweet melodic number incorporating warbling organ, accordion and traditional slide guitar. ‘The Devil Never Sleeps’, a swaggering saloon boogie slightly reminiscent of early Tom Waits, adds to the colourful mix.

This is an album totally out of left-field – a sprawling morass of woven instrumentation, complex rhythms and reverberating vocals, that easily surpasses anything from Beam’s back-catalogue in terms of artistic vision and delivery. Though some of the songs do seem slightly awkward in their reach, The Shepherd’s Dog is a grand, complicated, and ultimately gratifying step from Iron & Wine.


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